The Astronomer

The Astronomer (De astronoom)

By Johannes Vermeer 1668 oil on canvas (50 x 45 cm.)

Famous Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer was born in 1632 the son of Reynier Jansson and of Dignum Balthasars. Also know as Jan Vermeer he entered into an unhappy marriage with Catharina Bolnes, fathered 13 children, was a well known artist in his time but due to the national political upheavals of the time he died broke at the young age of 43 in 1675.  Vermeer left his wife and 11 living children impoverished. Blessedly, they were all taken in by Catharina’s mother.

Vermeer captured his likeness by studying it in a mirror. Walter Liedtke, writes: “The angle of the head [of the figure on the left], the raised left (that is, right) hand, and the more arbitrary arrangement of the other arm are consistent with this reading. But more striking still is the handling of light in this area, which differs from that of the other figures and, as a result, makes it seem as if a mirror or mirror-like image has been inserted into a painting by one of Honthorst’s Amsterdam or Delft admirers.” .

Vermeer specialized in domestic interiors, portraits and city views. His entire life was spent in Delft, where rumor has it, he possibly was trained by Leonaert Bramer. Vermeer had a 6 year apprenticeship with an unknown artist in an unknown town.

The Astronomer is a nicely preserved picture from 1668-69. It is characteristic of Vermeer’s style. The Astronomer is currently housed in the Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Vermeer had a great interest in optical effects; you can see how he achieved a nice balance of colors and simple shapes. This painting is a closed interior scene, notice how the light flows from left to right highlighting the colors and shapes.  Vermeer experimented ceaselessly with specific techniques to render the effects of natural illumination; the astronomer’s profession is shown by the celestial globe. This version is believed to by Jodocus Hondius. There is a book on the table supposedly by Metius’s Institutiones Astronomicae Geographicae. The volume is open to Book III, a section advising the astronomer to seek “inspiration from God” and the painting on the wall is of Moses. Moses represents knowledge, wisdom and science. Notice the maps, globe, rich robe he is wearing and beautiful cloth covering the table. These rich interior scenes were not of Vermeer’s actual home, he could not afford the luxuries exhibited and had to borrow the props. The viewer can tell from the things in the room that this gentleman is a man of education and wealth, (interestingly the man purported to be in the painting was not wealthy or the receiver of a higher education).

Portrayals of scientists were a favorite topic in 17th century Dutch painting. Vermeer’s works included both this astronomer and later The Geographer. Both are believed to portray the same man, possibly Anton Van Leeuwenhoek. Antony van Leeuwenhoek was a tradesman of Delft, Holland. He possessed no fortune or university degree, and only spoke Dutch. This should have been enough to exclude him from the scientific community of his time completely. But with skill, curiosity and an open mind, Leeuwenhoek succeeded in making some of the most important discoveries in the history of biology. His researches opened up the world of microscopic life to the scientific community. Much of the art of the Baroque era was fashioned to coincide with the advancements of scientific knowledge. As Science found its place in the world it became more popular to exhibit famous scientists and their discoveries in all manner of art.

Galileo Galilei considered the father of Modern Astronomy

I chose The Astronomer instead of my earlier favorite The Geographer because as I was reading about Vermeer’s work I learned about multiple “missing” paintings. There was one called Jupiter, Mars, and Venus. As I like to  marvel at the stars in the universe it caught my attention and I looked closer at The Astronomer. I found it to be more appealing to me then The Geographer. I love the way the light enters the room and illuminates the interior. The painting is done beautiful muted colors, basic. It is a person dedicated to the work at hand; he appears to have time to dwell on the task before him. To me there is nothing negative, frantic or unappealing in this painting.  He is a just a man employing and enjoying the sunlight coming thru the window while he works.

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